When I mentioned trying to make “a Nick Park-style robot,” I’m not sure the reference worked, because I was specifically talking about the robot from A Grand Day Out. It’s one of my favorite animated characters, and the sequence where it wakes up and discovers Wallace’s picnic site might be my favorite moment in any animated movie.
It’s incredibly expressive, using only its hands. And it’s burned into my brain as the image of “endearing robot”; even though I haven’t seen A Grand Day Out in years, I was just futzing around with a modeling program and subliminally tried to copy a pose from that character exactly.
What I like best about that whole character, though, is that everything that makes it special is so unnecessary. It could’ve been a more conventional retro-sci-fi-robot design, and the story would’ve worked just as well. It was a choice to make it a completely silent coin-operated robot, and it’s never explained because it doesn’t need to be. Any more than it needs to be explained why the villain in The Wrong Trousers is a penguin.
The thing that made me aspire (and fail) to become an animator was that the best animated projects have a density of imagination and design that you don’t get in live action. Of course there are meticulously-designed live action movies, but with animation, it’s a necessity. There’s not a single thing on screen that hasn’t had at least one person spending hours thinking about it.
As much as I love Frozen, for instance, I still think it’s part of a trend of modern animation in which efficiency is key. By that I mean that everything on screen is in service of the story, or at least in service of a particular gag. The stories are pretty great, the gags are funny, and the character designs are appealing and often perfectly animated. But I rarely get the sense that there’s a detail or a moment that’s unnecessary, that exists solely because an artist wanted it to.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite animated movies, and the moments of unnecessary imagination that make them stand out. (Note that I’ve mostly lost track of animation in the past several years, and I still haven’t seen most of the Laika movies, Kubo and the Two Strings in particular. They tend to feel more free than the tentpole Disney movies in including details just for their own sake).
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
This movie surprised me two times over: first, because I hadn’t heard anything about it while it was in production, so it just seemed to me to appear out of nowhere as this unexpected master-work. Second, because I only realized after the fact that it had become my favorite animated movie. It’s so light in tone and casual in its attitude that it almost felt like watching a TV show, until I thought more about it and realized that just about every single frame was packed with detail and imaginative touches.
My favorite is as Miles and Peter are escaping from a lab, and one of them throws a bagel at the pursuing scientists. It hits one of them on the head, and for no reason other than because it’s awesome, the movie illustrates the hit with a comic book-style SFX “BAGEL!”
So much went into the design of the Land of the Dead, and it’s packed full of details everywhere. But the movie clearly wants to wow you with the spectacle of it; there are plenty of sequences in which the scene is clearly established to let the audience soak in every last bit of the massive amount of work that went into it. But the detail that the movie doesn’t emphasize or comment on is the quality of light, particularly with the alebrijes. They’re not just colorful; they glow. You can see a faint neon-colored light reflected in everything that surrounds them.
Also a note of warning: don’t be fooled into thinking, like I was, that you can go watch individual scenes from Coco out of context and be just fine. I went from normal to ugly-crying in seconds.
Toy Story 2
Actually, the best example of what I’m talking about is in the Toy Story shorts, not the features. In particular, Small Fry, which felt like sitting in on a Pixar story meeting as one character idea after another is thrown on-screen for just long enough to get the gag.
But Toy Story 2 also had some not-strictly-necessary flourishes, like the sequence in which Woody is restored by “The Cleaner,” which is staged kind of like a horror movie. The best, though, is when the gang enters Al’s Toy Barn and runs into the Barbie party.
The “Rhapsody in Blue” segment on its own is enough to justify the existence of Fantasia 2000. My favorite bit is when the henpecked husband meets an organ grinder’s monkey, and in perfect sync with the music, they do a back and forth before dancing together in an expression of pure joy. It’s not the “emotional climax” of the segment, or even of Rhapsody in Blue for that matter, but it’s still my favorite.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
I liked this movie a lot, but I wanted to love it. The idea that’s stood out in my memory of it is how the characters eat, going from respectable and anthropomorphized to ravenous animals with no warning and no context. I guess it’s not strictly “unnecessary,” since the story demands that the characters be animals and not just stand-ins for humans. But it feels like the one detail that really demands this be animated, instead of just another Wes Anderson movie with George Clooney and his usual cast.
I remember Up as being my gateway to not giving a damn whether people see me crying in a theater. I spent most of the movie in tears, not just because so much of it is an emotional barrage, but because there’s an extended chunk in the middle of the movie that’s so dense with character introductions and ingenious ideas that I was crying laughing. Everything with Dug and Kevin is brilliant, and it seems that they’re just throwing one perfectly-animated character moment after another at you, with no chance to catch your breath.
The pinnacle of that was the introduction of Alpha, who appears as a menacing presence in partial shadow until he starts talking, in a high squeaky voice. Sure, they make a gag about it, by having characters comment on his funny voice not once but twice. But the part that they leave unexplained is why his speech patterns are so stilted, like an over-the-top movie villain trying to sound more sophisticated than he actually is. I think Up is still the pinnacle of character-based animated features, often seeming like it doesn’t need to draw much attention to any of its clever gags or character moments, because it’s got 1000 more clever ideas waiting to come up next.